The writings of an 18th century English poet are perhaps not the most natural companion for traditional Appalachian-style music, but the Martha Redbone Roots Project pulls off this unlikely pairing so effortlessly that it is nothing short of genius. William Blake did, after all, call his poems “songs,” and on The Garden Of Love they are rendered exactly as they were meant to be. The music is not merely an incidental vehicle for the enlightened words of Blake, but a masterful tribute to the roots of American music, delving back to Redbone’s Native American ancestry.
Each selection, written by Redbone with collaborators Aaron Whitby and John McEuen, is brought to life in equal parts by her highly expressive singing and the immensely well put together and colorful instrumentalists. Redbone’s voice rings out unaccompanied in a mountain holler on “The Ecchoing Green,” and easily leads a rousing gospel-inspired chorus in “On Anothers Sorrow” and “I Rose Up At The Dawn Of The Day.” Those two poems seem to have been waiting patiently for this rendition, the natural flow of their language begging for this rhythmic interpretation. “Why Should I Care For The Men Of Thames” is the most apparent meeting of the two worlds, recited by a darkly British-accented man over a background of Redbone’s traditional chants and rattles.
The accounts of Blake’s strange and vivid visions are right at home. The Garden Of Love proves that the struggles and darkness present in his poetry are the eternal. It never comes close to being mistaken as a simple recitation of a long-dead man’s poetry, but is a strong assertion of this incredibly capable songwriter’s own culture.